If you're a Hindi film fan and watched a fair number of releases in 2022, you might have had an unprecedented thought: when did our action get good? In film after film, big and small, worthy and disposable, the action held up. Looop Lapeta, Love Hostel, Jhund, Thar, Anek, Laal Singh Chaddha, Monica, O My Darling, Bhediya… and most of these weren’t even “action films”. And this is Hindi cinema, which has spent the last few decades playing catch-up to the action cinema of the southern industries.
India has always made action films but it’s only recently that we have started making them well. The reasons lie mainly in commerce. Hollywood action tentpoles have started cornering an alarming percentage of the market. Indian films have had to learn to do the same things, only cheaper. Audiences too are better informed and likelier to reject badly made local knock-offs than they used to be. The increasing number of foreign action coordinators and stuntpersons working on Indian films, and the rise of idiosyncratic directors like S.S. Rajamouli and Lokesh Kanagaraj and combat-trained stars like Tiger Shroff and Vidyut Jammwal, is an indication that action—everything from training to choreography, effects and stuntwork—is finally being taken seriously in this country. And the success of RRR (2022) means there is—for the first time ever—global curiosity about Indian action.
It seems an opportune time to take stock, to acknowledge the excitement of the moment and to salute the past. To this end, here is our list of the 50 greatest Indian action films. Our only rule while assembling it was to honour action we see as innovative, exemplary or influential, rather than simply listing great films with decent action (we assure you we don’t think Liger is a better film than, say, Nayakan). We've included a few sports and war films, both action-adjecent genres. Our preferences run to films with practical, well-choreographed action, though of course there are more than a few CGI blowouts. We have tried to range as far and wide as possible but it is, in the end, a personal list, by two Hindi speakers. We certainly wish there were more female-led films to choose from—though even this should change soon. Indian action is just getting started. Ten years from now, we're going to need a bigger list.
Making good martial arts films is difficult because you either have fighters with zero acting experience or you are stuck with actors who cannot be bothered with combat education. Abrid Shine’s The Kung Fu Master, a revenge story set in Rishikesh, starts with an advantage. Two of its three leads are bona-fide fighters and just about serviceable actors: The villain, played by Sanoop Dinesh, has a karate black belt while protagonist Jiji Scaria is a wing chun expert. The third, Neeta Pillai, is an actor who has clearly put in the hours of basic kung fu training. The film’s greatest achievement is its crisp visual demarcation of these styles—Pillai is all high kicks and tiger-crane flourish, Scaria has Donnie Yen-style supersonic hands, while Dinesh brings the explosive power and bone-crunching intensity of karate.—AMJ
In his ballot for Sight & Sound’s 100 Greatest Films Of All Time poll, director S.S. Rajamouli included three animated films. It’s fitting, then, that his own breakthrough (outside of Telugu cinema) was Eega, which, though ostensibly a live-action film, has a cartoon-like insect for a hero. After his death at the hands of the psychotic Sudeep, Nani returns as a housefly and starts making his life hell. The effects are slightly on the cheesy side but Rajamouli commits wholeheartedly and directs with verve, finding ingenuous ways for Nani to induce everything from car crashes to mansion-levelling explosions. We will take the inventiveness of Eega over effects-heavy star vehicles like Krrish (2006), Enthiran (2010) and Ra.One (2011) any day.—UB
Salman Khan’s resurgence may have begun with Wanted (2009) but the Big Bang happened with Dabangg’s truly bonkers opening fight sequence, where Inspector Chulbul Pandey—a “half-Robin Hood”, stealing from the rich and pocketing the loot—fights a horde of bank robbers. The stop-start action style, popular with Telugu and Tamil film-makers, has never worked so well for Bollywood as it did here. The great thing about Dabangg’s action is that it’s wholly in line with the idea of Chulbul Pandey, the crooked cop with a heart of gold. He’s mean but fair, a lenient jock, certainly not above a cheap shot. An all-round slippery character for the ages—and he literally slips and slides out of the goons’ grasp in the opening fight thanks to some good ol’ engine oil.—AMJ
Shivaay begins with flashy mountain parkour, but it’s the unadorned, unrelenting action that starts around the one-hour mark that earns Ajay Devgn’s Taken riff its place on the list. There’s a blistering chase sequence in the streets of Sofia, with Devgn on foot, then hanging off various speeding vehicles, in pursuit of his daughter’s kidnappers (unlike the stop-start action of the Devgn-Rohit Shetty films, this set piece reserves its slo-mo flourish for the very end). The action comes fast and brutal after this, Devgn dispatching dozens upon dozens of Bulgarian child traffickers with Wick-ian efficiency.—UB
There’s a hand-hewn quality to Lakadbaggha. The dialogue has a loose, improvisational feel. The protagonist, an animal-loving Kolkata delivery guy played by Anshuman Jha, is a martial arts enthusiast on his own time, trying to internalise his late father’s training methods. This underdog story, however, packs a solid punch once he goes after an animal smuggling ring and the hand-to-hand action begins. Clean, fluid, cleverly shot combat scenes, a menacing female assassin (Eksha Keirung), and an endearing hero who opens fights with the ultimate humblebrag—“Main ladnaa nahi chahtaa (I don’t want to fight).”—AMJ
Is it an action film at all? There could hardly be more action. Think of the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, incredible feats of movement and timing pulled off with deceptive ease. Then watch Ranbir Kapoor lead the police (Saurabh Shukla perfect as a huffing Keystone Cop) on a merry dance through the streets of Darjeeling, shimmy up and down ladders, use mirrors and brooms and bicycles as props. Kapoor gives one of the great physical performances in Hindi cinema as the deaf-mute Barfi, executing more expert falls and contained stunt work in a few scenes than action stars do in entire films. Director Anurag Basu’s off-kilter choices lend this comedy-drama an eccentric energy—a reminder that great action is editing and camerawork as much as performance.—UB
For all its veneration as one of the all-time great Hindi films, Sholay still moves with purpose and authority. There’s plenty borrowed from Sergio Leone, but Ramesh Sippy has clearly also studied Sam Peckinpah: his use of slowed-down, stretched-out action was novel for Indian cinema then and still looks impressive. This revenge Western is full of eye-catching action, whether it’s quick scenes like Amitabh Bachchan darting across a bridge as bullets fly or extended set pieces like the Holi raid. The crowning glory is the dacoit attack on the train, a marvel of stunt work, dynamic editing and photography, action coordinator Gerry Crampton’s experience on Bond films undoubtedly coming in handy.—UB
By the time you’re done reading this sentence, Rajinikanth will have finished the whole article, chuckled heartily and published iambic pentameter responses in dozens of languages. When your nearly-70-year-old leading man is a canonically ordained braggadocio deity, you have to shoot and edit your action movie very carefully indeed. And Kaala threads the needle again and again with its Rajini fight sequences—the battle royale at Dharavi, the gorgeously messy swords-and-umbrella bloodbath. Pa. Ranjith knows just how to get the most out of Rajini’s aura and his mannerisms. It helps that the Rajini personality cult is used to tell a fascinating slumdwellers-versus-politicians story about the power of collective action.—AMJ
Liger is a silly, silly film but the fights are a lot of fun. Vijay Deverakonda plays the titular jeet kune do student with a stutter (“I’m a fa-fa-fa-fighter”), who becomes an MMA champ after being jilted by Ananya Panday’s rich girl. Interspersed with dance numbers and bargain-basement comedy is a market fight, a dojo fight, a slap fight on a train, an amphitheatre fight and a bunch of MMA bouts. The running sexism of the film gets weird redressal when Liger gets his ass kicked by a krav maga-proficient girl gang even as he tells them to be more ladylike. With some smart doubling, the lanky Deverakonda cuts an impressive figure—if only the climactic showdown with Mike Tyson wasn’t a washout.—UB
Hrithik Roshan’s renaissance as a leading man began somewhere in the middle of Siddharth Anand’s Bang Bang!, the official Hindi remake of the Tom Cruise spy thriller Knight And Day (2010). You can see his body language relaxing, a movie-star languor taking over the movements. It’s this now-familiar confidence that allows Roshan to swashbuckle his way through some deeply silly but enjoyable set pieces. The third act has an almost hallucinogenic edge, especially the climax, which involves a madcap bike-and-car-chase, bringing down a seaplane and time-bombing a desert castle. To do all that while maintaining Hrithik Roshan’s hair is true extreme sport.—AMJ
In Force (2011), John Abraham—the only major Hindi actor besides Tiger Shroff whose sole job is action star—lifts a motorcycle and flings it at a goon. In Force 2, Abraham, playing ACP Yash Singh, lifts a car with the bad guys inside. Abraham’s fight scenes in the first film felt like playing Counter Strike in easy mode. In the sequel, directed by Abhinay Deo, he carries out a massacre in the first-person-shooter style popularised by Counter Strike. In Force, Abraham threatens to kill a nurse should she dare administer sleep meds instead of the painkillers he wants. In Force 2, Abraham probably threatened to kill the scriptwriter if he was assigned dialogue with too many syllables. Like a low-budget convenience store, everything in this film is 1+1 free and advertised in flaming letters.—AMJ
Hindi action films from the mid-1970s to the mid-90s had more in common with scrappy Hong Kong thrillers than Hollywood ones, whose budgets and sophistication they couldn’t hope to match. There were some fruitful exchanges: Deewaar (1975) begat The Brothers (1979) which begat A Better Tomorrow (1986) which begat Aatish (1994). Hathyar, in which Sanjay Dutt’s desperately poor Avi becomes a hired gun for a gangster, could well have been a heroic bloodshed film: It has the low-rent look, the grittiness, the codes that bind men of violence. Dutt’s smile makes the murder on the mud banks especially disturbing. Avi starts the film as a hot-headed but decent kid; now he’s a killer who enjoys his work.—UB
The “mass” entry scene is a staple of Tamil and Telugu action cinema—moustaches and sunglasses twirled, muscles flexed, bodies sent flying away from the hero in a centrifugal explosion. Prashanth Neel’s K.G.F. movies—the story of an uprising in the mining region of Kolar Gold Fields—consist almost entirely of mass entry scenes for hero and villain alike. Rocky Bhai (Yash) racks up double-digit body counts in several scenes from Chapter 1, most notably the Mad Max: Fury Road-inspired kill spree just before the intermission. Rocky is cartoonishly strong and adept at stabbing, shooting and flinging motorcycles at people (three different films mentioned in this list count motorcycle-flinging among their attractions). Chapter 2 is more of the same, with the sideshow of Sanjay Dutt cosplaying as a Viking warlord.—AMJ
Shah Rukh Khan’s opening fight in Pathaan goes hard but never forgets the physicality of its leading man. Superspy Pathaan isn’t destroying the bad guys through raw muscularity, he’s dismantling them with precision and finesse and improvisation. Deepika Padukone and John Abraham’s action scenes utilise their respective strengths equally well. Abraham’s imposing physique and upper-body strength come through in his slugfests with Pathaan, while Padukone brings poise and control to her ice-skating and gunfight scenes. Thanks to director Siddharth Anand’s decade-long obsession with aeroplanes-in-peril, the climactic fight sees Khan and Abraham strapping on jetpacks before duking it out mano a mano, even as a time bomb tick-tocks aboard a Delhi-bound passenger flight.—AMJ
The action in Nitesh Tiwari’s massively successful sports film—about a former wrestler who trains his daughters in the sport—has a satisfying thud and crunch to it. But what makes Dangal a great action film as well as a compelling family drama is that even when the actors are grappling and tossing each other around, they are playing the emotion of the moment. The daughters’ first successes against boys in local tournaments would be nothing without young Zaira Wasim’s death stare. And the film’s emotional centre is the charged backyard bout with Fatima Sana Shaikh and Aamir Khan. It starts off as a parental lesson and ends up a declaration of independence.—UB
Balletic violence isn’t common in Indian cinema, but Pushkar and Gayathri’s Hindi remake of their own Tamil-language cops-and-gangsters fable does it brilliantly. The crown jewel is the riverside scene where Hrithik Roshan sends bad guys flying in slo-mo while ‘Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe’ plays on the radio. The carnage unleashed by Roshan during the ‘Bande’ song, right before the climax, is equally eye-catching. No disrespect to Vijay Sethupathi, who was brilliant in the 2017 Tamil film, but the Kanpur rooftop parkour scene could only have been pulled off with such elan by Roshan—at one point, a pair of nunchucks is used to zipline down a crowded lane.—AMJ
Maaveeran is a straightforward slum-dwellers vs evil politicians story, with a unique twist—the down-on-luck hero (Sivakarthikeyan) gains a voice inside his head, a voice-over that sees him as the titular “Maaveeran”, the people’s hero. Said voice-over (a deadpan Vijay Sethupathi) allows him to see the future a few seconds in advance—which makes the fight sequences deliciously tricky and a joy to behold (visualising fights in advance is a bona fide action trope, seen in films like The Last Samurai  and The Equalizer ). The first time we see The Voice in action is an extended al fresco battle royale with a few dozen goons. The results are both hilarious and blood-soaked, like watching live-action Looney Tunes.—AMJ
Like Angamaly Diaries (2017), the other film on this list featuring Anthony Varghese, Tinu Pappachan’s Ajagajantharam is in perpetual motion from start to finish: bodies jostling, swaying, running, dancing, colliding, complete with roving camera and editing so sharp it generates sparks. There’s no real plot—Varghese plays a mahout, or elephant trainer, who gets into fights—just a lot of unserious mayhem (the first set piece is an epic food fight). In the two sprawling, epic brawls, something tricky is pulled off: The treatment is entirely fanciful, yet broadly adheres to the laws of physics (the difference between Malayalam and Tamil/Telugu action). There’s only one lesson to be learnt: Don’t mess with the ones who brought the elephant.—UB
A unique thing about Captain Prabhakaran is how Vijayakanth’s forest officer eschews punches—the Indian action star’s stock in trade—and instead kicks his way to a showdown with dacoit Veerabhadran (Mansoor Ali Khan). In its heart of hearts, this cult 1991 actioner just wants to be a Hong Kong kung fu movie. That it doesn’t quite have the expertise or the personnel to pull this off makes its efforts even more endearing. The close combat is still bone-crunching fun and there’s some memorable pulp (like a granny slicing open robbers with a sword), but the best sequence by far, as in Sholay (an evident inspiration), is the extended bandit raid on the train.—UB
Brothers suffers in comparison to the film it’s an official remake of, the Tom Hardy-Joel Edgerton fight film Warrior (2011), especially during the emotionally loaded scenes with the estranged stepbrothers played by Akshay Kumar and Sidharth Malhotra. But the MMA action holds its own, setting hothead Malhotra on a collision course with Kumar, an ex-MMA fighter-turned physics teacher. Malhotra transforms from deer in the headlights to force of nature in the ring. The film, however, belongs to Akshay Kumar, Bollywood’s longest-serving action hero, and likely the first after wrestler Dara Singh to have trained in martial arts. Here he’s an older fighter, slower and more dependent on wrestling, grappling and chokeholds, as opposed to Malhotra’s haymakers and leap-punches. There’s an additional layer of pathos because you can see a younger Akshay Kumar absolutely digging his teeth into the Malhotra role back in the 1990s.—AMJ
Location shooting and a realistic approach to disaster-movie mayhem lend Kaala Patthar a gravitas that most 1970s Hindi action films lack. Amitabh Bachchan plays a coal miner with a past; the final act allows him to atone for past sins by rescuing dozens of workers from near disaster (the film was based on an actual incident in which 375 miners died). Director Yash Chopra had the bright idea of entrusting the special effects to Glen Robinson, who had experience working on Hollywood disaster films like Earthquake (1975) and The Hindenburg (1975). The whole film is tough, sober and grimy, but the last 20 minutes, when water starts flooding the mines, is something unique in Hindi cinema.—UB
There’s a haunting quality to the violence in Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, which raises resistance to a mythic level. Dhanush plays Karnan, a villager torn between applying for a government job and wanting to lash out against the inhuman treatment of his village by a neighbouring upper-caste one and the local police. Selvaraj keeps everything on a low simmer until the halfway mark, when Karnan takes out his frustration on a public bus. After that it’s one pitched battle after another as the state declares war on its people and Karnan is forced to pick up the sword. Comparisons might be drawn to the Brazilian film Bacurau (2019) and Dhanush’s own Asuran (2019) but Karnan is very much its own thing: visceral, angry, anguished.—UB
Vidhu Vinod Chopra has shot some of the prettiest-looking sequences on this list. And Mission Kashmir, an allegorical terrorism drama about a young militant, Altaaf (Hrithik Roshan), and his estranged cop foster dad, Inaayat (Sanjay Dutt), features arguably Chopra’s most elegant work. The gunfight scene in which Altaaf’s birth parents die remains a haunting, super-kinetic affair all these years later, and the extended climax, where Altaaf redeems himself and goes gonzo with a missile launcher, is distilled Bollywood mayhem with the kind of technical sheen that was hardly commonplace in the industry circa 2000.—AMJ
One of the tougher decisions while assembling this list was choosing between Lakshya (2004) and Shershaah. The former is the obvious prototype—clean-cut hero learns discipline in the Kargil War—and is just a better-acted, more stirring film. But Vishnuvardhan’s Shershaah has better, tougher action. It operates in a post-Uri world (the films share an action coordinator, Stefan Richter), unfurling a series of quick, devastating set pieces—the ambush of the army convoy, the raid on the terrorist hideout where Sidharth Malhotra gets to do some hand-to-hand combat, the attack on the cantonment—culminating in a final half hour of abrasive, unrelenting war theatre.—UB
Parinda kicked off the modern Hindi gangster cycle, but it was also a landmark action film in a year that gave us tough crime films like Hathyar (see no. 39) and Raakh. Vidhu Vinod Chopra was able to call upon the services of Renu Saluja, arguably the greatest editor Indian cinema has seen, and ace cinematographer Binod Pradhan. Their combined efforts result in half a dozen incredible-looking, expertly choreographed sequences: the murder among the pigeons; the killings in the oil factory, whirring machinery cutting the light into noirish strips; the thrilling chase down the temple steps; the sudden burst of adrenaline in the assassination attempt at Gateway of India.—UB
In two of the three Vidyut Jammwal films on this list, he plays a commando and an MMA instructor. In the Khuda Haafiz films, he’s Sameer Chaudhary, software engineer. An inexplicably lethal software engineer. The rubric of the Bollywood rape-revenge film dictates that Sameer’s wife and adopted child suffer horribly for him to explode into action. Making it through these regressive scenes does have a sizeable payoff—Jammwal transported with rage, showing off his speed, strength and all-round martial arts skills in a madcap second half. The centrepiece of Chapter 2 is a massive prison yard brawl involving dozens of inmates shivving each other in the rain. It’s heavily inspired by The Raid 2 (2014) but Jammwal’s execution is flawless and even improves upon the original in a couple of places.—AMJ
When Bollywood action star Maanav (Ayushmann Khurrana) accidentally kills the brother of Haryanvi thug Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat), he must acquire real-world survival skills on the run. At the 10-minute mark there’s a scene on a movie set where an angry Maanav performs a Bollywood-style fight. The mask is let slip deliberately, to accentuate the difference between this and the “real” action we see Maanav doing later on. Maanav’s escape through a maze-like grid of an under-construction building is top-notch, as is his and Bhoora’s no-holds-barred indoors brawl. Khurrana and Ahlawat, neither of whom are combat-trained, are superb in the fight scenes. Director Anirudh Iyer can take some credit for this, and for the acerbic, accurate dissection of the love-hate relationship between Indian stars and their fans today.—AMJ
Minnal Murali is Indian cinema’s most convincing attempt at a classical superhero story, hewing closest to long-running DC/Marvel narrative tropes. Jaison (Tovino Thomas) goes through the full hero’s journey: the traumatic catalyst (struck by lightning), the paternity quest (his superhero alter-ego is a character from his father’s play), confronting the Other (the film’s telekinetic supervillain Shibu pretends to be the real Minnal Murali). The scene where he stops a bus from falling off a cliff and the climactic Jaison-Shibu fight are two sequences where you’ll be reminded of Sam Raimi’s excellent mid-2000s Spider-Man trilogy. Like those films, Minnal Murali often uses children for reaction shots, because these are stories meant to evoke a sense of childlike wonder, something sadly absent from much of today’s superhero-saturated world.—AMJ
Every few years, a clip from a black-and-white Tamil film does the rounds on social media. A muscly bare-chested man faces off against the hero in a white turtleneck. The style is expressionist—dramatic lighting, crazy angles. The way they size each other up, it looks like they’re about to drop some serious martial arts. What follows might be closest to karate—there’s a lot of chopping—but it’s really like nothing you’ve seen. Many people find the scene funny but we think it’s marvellous. We feel that way about the whole film, really, an action comedy by M. Karnan in which Jaishankar plays a Robin Hood figure. Kaalam Vellum simply can’t be beat for variety of action. There’s stick combat. There’s a horseback chase and a saloon brawl. There’s classic Western gunplay and a sword fight. There’s a scene where they’re shimmying up trees like in A Touch of Zen (1972). There’s a high-speed motorboat. There’s a faithful dog. The delights never end.—UB
The moment when the camera goes through the van with the gangsters, continues in a straight line through the truck it’s pursuing with the drugged cops in the back, and then passes through the police bus in front with even more gangsters, all in one uninterrupted shot, is when Lokesh Kanagaraj announced himself as the coolest action director in India. Karthi plays a jailbird who just wants to see his daughter but gets caught in a standoff between gangsters and narcotic officers. Much of what made Vikram (no. 9 on our list) a cult smash a few years later was present in Kaithi—the interlocking plots, the black humour, the fetishising of archaic weaponry. Every set piece here has a detail or an eccentricity that puts it over the top—like the battery-powered torches in a frantic night-time chase, or the flying papers that lend a police station brawl a dreamlike quality.—UB
Salman Khan isn’t exactly the hardest-working action star, so it’s truly impressive how much Kabir Khan got him to run in this film. Ek Tha Tiger, in which Khan plays a RAW agent trying to prevent nuclear technology from getting into the wrong hands, is the first entry in what has now been branded the YRF spy universe. It’s the most fleet-footed of the lot, achieving a pleasing fluidity in its colourful chases (director Kabir Khan seemingly admired The Bourne Ultimatum  so much he brought in one of its stunt coordinators, Markos Rounthwaite). Salman Khan would drastically reduce the running in Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), though Katrina Kaif, after doing relatively little, action-wise, as Pakistani agent Zoya in the first film, manages some impressive ass-kicking in the sequel.—UB
While Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur (which premiered as a five-and-a-half-hour film, though it was later released in two parts) isn’t commonly identified as an actioner, it is bursting with memorable—and influential—set pieces. The opening shoot-out at Sardar Khan’s house to begin with, a hailstorm of bullets raining down upon the Khan household as it’s huddled before the TV set. And, of course, its string of impeccably visualised and scored death scenes—'Jiya Ho Bihar Ke Lala' playing as a bullet-riddled Sardar Khan breathes his last in a hand-cart, an EDM version of ‘Keh Ke Lunga’ as Faizal Khan pumps dozens of rounds into Ramadhir Singh. The electric chase sequence in Part II (set to ‘Chhi Chha Ledar’) is classic Kashyap, a combination of propulsive energy and farcical humour, and a reminder of another classic chase scene he had done on a much tighter budget, in Black Friday (2004).—AMJ
Long before Sunny Deol embarked on a decades-long personal crusade to deliver cinematic humiliations of Pakistan, he was the perfect angry young man in Arjun, fighting a politician-goon-police cabal. When one revisits the action scenes in Arjun, the lingering feeling is of wasted potential. He is just so very convincing, not only in his righteous fury but also the brutal punishment he hands out—fight scenes at either end of the film in Arjun’s mohalla show off the young Deol’s efficacy as an action hero. He’s strong and agile enough for slightly longer takes but also precise enough to allow director Rahul Rawail to roll out the slo-mo at crucial moments. The climax sees Deol racing against time, bullets and an army of hired muscle to deliver evidence to a police station. It is a fitting, visceral coup de grace for a strong, versatile action movie visibly ahead of its time.—AMJ
“If you’re sure that the fight is about to start, hit the guy who’s standing next to the person who is talking.” Scrapping is such an accepted part of life in Angamaly that it comes with its own strategies and philosophies. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s film was a revelation when it released in 2017, establishing Malayalam action as a more grounded alternative to the louder, dafter efforts of Tamil, Telugu and Hindi cinema. If Angamaly Diaries wasn’t an action film, it would be a delightful study of small-town rituals and rivalries. But there are frequent explosive battles and a few spectacular set pieces, none more impressive than the 11-minute sequence—done in a single shot—that seems to take in the entire town.—UB
Vidyut Jammwal is nothing if not self-aware. “Time for action,” he says at the start of Commando 2: The Black Money Trail (2017), before parkouring and killing his way through a high-rise. The problem is, even in a Jammwal film, there are moments when it can’t be time for action—and those are difficult. If only it were possible to take the best bits from the three Commando films (and the interrogation scene from Junglee ) and edit them into one unbeatable Jammwal showcase. For this list, we've picked Commando 3, in which Jamwal’s Para SF soldier tracks down terrorists in London. Grit your teeth through the cheesiness and borderline Islamophobia and there’s plenty of payoff: an electric, Jackie Chan-ish fight in a Camden alley, an irresistibly silly one where he lays waste to an akhada, and the extended finale where he fights two expert martial artists at once and does an outrageous takedown of an unfortunate hulk.—UB
With A Gentleman, Raj & DK, directors of smart, fizzy, mid-budget crime capers, announced their arrival as serious action-movie creators—a reputation they have since cemented with the web series The Family Man. Sidharth Malhotra plays Rishi/Gaurav, a spy who is forced to adopt a new identity after being betrayed by his own covert ops team, headed by the Machiavellian Col. Saxena (long-serving action star Suniel Shetty). Raj & DK’s versatility and sense of whimsy while planning action scenes means we are spoilt with a full spread of eclectic set pieces: a brief but viscerally enjoyable hand-to-hand combat scene in a supermarket, a couple of bravura car chases, a Mission Impossible-like skyscraper-rappelling scene in the third act. This is a highly skilled directorial team with vision, timing and off-kilter humour, a winning combination.—AMJ
In the climactic fight scene in Kenny Basumatary’s action-comedy Local Kung Fu (2013), the protagonist is played by Basumatary himself while the bad guy is played by Utpal Hazowary, both professional martial artists. Suspended Inspector Boro sees the two actors playing against type, with Basumatary this time the corrupt cop. The Bruce Lee-inspired fight scenes, which in Local Kung Fu had a distinctly handmade quality to them, have a professional finish in Suspended Inspector Boro, without losing their bite and the cleanness of the choreography. The concluding battle royale where Hazowary takes on Basumatary and fellow martial artist Montu Deori (much of the same crew are in Local Kung Fu 2  and Local Utpaat ), is better than a lot of Bollywood films spending 10 times the money. Basumatary and Hazowary represent an exciting indie vision of Indian action, bootstrapped (Local Kung Fu was made for under ₹1 lakh) but free from big-studio bottlenecks.—AMJ
Aditya Dhar’s Uri is one of the most impressive examples of conservative popular art to come out of India in years. This hawkish war film about an actual 2016 attack on an army camp in Kashmir and India’s retaliatory “surgical strike” lauded the quick action and spoke the language of the ruling party —though it also had the government speaking its language (“Ghar mein ghus ke maara”—we hit them in their homes—turned up in campaign speeches). Its sober intensity was a change from previous Indian war films and the action was several steps beyond, with bruising set pieces that drew on films like Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and first-person shooters like Call Of Duty. The final raid on Pakistani soil unfolds with cold efficiency—a thrilling, unsettling vision of what the defence minister in the film calls “naya Hindustan” (new India).—UB
As with all great boxing films, Sarpatta Parambarai’s best scenes are its training montages. As a green Kabilan (Arya, built like an ox) receives instruction from his coach, director Pa. Ranjith cuts his every movement to a jumpy score. In a later one, the blistering ‘Neeye Oli’ plays as Kabilan is put through his paces by a mysterious boatman-coach. Sarpatta Parambarai is a rare sports film featuring a barnstorming Dalit protagonist, which gives its fights a significance beyond standard underdog tropes. The bout with the Bluto-like Vembuli (John Kokken) is epic but an even better matchup is when Kabilan takes on the lithe, showboating Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakkal), a supporting character for the ages.—UB
It’s not often that Indian event movies end on a cliffhanger. The marketing question of “Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?” was a major hook for Baahubali 2. The ‘why’ wasn’t nearly as interesting as the ‘how’, S.S. Rajamouli putting on another masterclass in spectacle cinema with the Kattappa-killing-Baahubali scene, a marvel of shadow and flame, silhouette lighting elevating these (largely unidimensional) characters to mythic status.
The climactic battle of this film is now a Twitter staple, film buffs marvelling at the audacity of it all. Baahubali (Prabhas) instructs his troops to make gigantic catapults out of palm trees, launching packs of soldiers onto the enemy’s fort. And for any other Indian director but Rajamouli, that last sentence would have been followed by “and it was hilarious”. He makes superheroes and gods out of impossibly pious jocks. Love it or hate it, stuff like the palm tree catapult is why he's undeniably an auteur.—AMJ
Viewed from one perspective, Tiger Shroff’s career so far has been a diffuse haze of white sneakers, high-kicks and dance-offs. But for action movie fans, Shroff’s martial arts skills and commitment to being shredded and hyper-flexible at all times are what matter. Baaghi, a shrill but fast-paced mash-up of The Karate Kid (1984), The Raid (2011), Kill Bill (2003) and other martial arts classics, announced Shroff’s arrival as a serious action star. The first half has Shroff training at a Kalaripayattu school with retired soldier Guruswamy (Shaurya Bharadwaj). He later faces off against Guruswamy’s evil son, Raghav (Sudheer Babu), in an acceptable facsimile of The Raid, moving up a multistorey building chock-full of bad guys. It is awesome fun to watch Shroff mowing down fighters of varying sizes and fighting styles with a high-energy, acrobatics-adjacent method. A lot of things about Baaghi are juvenile but the action is strictly for grown-ups who can handle the heat.—AMJ
If Kaithi’s straight-line-through-the-gangster’s-van shot made audiences sit up and take notice, Vikram (a sort of sequel to Kaithi) has an equally virtuosic sequence about 30 minutes in, one that underlines director Lokesh Kanagaraj’s asymmetric visual thinking. Intelligence officer Amar (Fahadh Faasil) has been tasked with solving a series of assassinations carried out by a masked gang. The killings all appear to be connected to an old man named Karnan (Kamal Haasan), who Amar suspects is Agent Vikram, a legendary black ops agent from the 1980s. In the scene, Amar is retracing Karnan’s steps, which takes him to a brothel several floors above the ground. As Amar edges out of a window and on to a narrow ledge, the camera slowly moves away from him and assumes an aerial position. It then zooms back in to show us a nonchalant Karnan in the past, nonchalantly carrying out a surveillance operation of some kind, standing casually on the ledge (in comparison, Amar is shown sweating, moving gingerly). The whole thing has been edited to look like a one-shot scene and it grabs you by the scruff of the neck.
Vikram’s hand-to-hand and gunfight scenes are equally distinctive. Vijay Sethupathi (the primary villain here) and Kamal Haasan are of different ages, heights and physiques. Kanagaraj knows just what angles to assume for both actors so their punches and stabs look like kill-blows, the sound pinging off the screen like the crack of doom. He’s also an ace director of foot and car chases, not to mention scenes involving explosives—an enviable all-round bag of tricks for an action director.—AMJ
In the few seconds it takes Nagarjuna to yank the bicycle chain off, Indian action cinema grew up. Equal parts Arjun (see no. 18) and Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (1972), thisstreet gangfilmwas Ram Gopal Varma’s debut as director. It’s hard to believe he’s a first-timer. Siva may look raw, but there’s already a sophistication to Varma’s set pieces that would inform later classics like Raat (1992), Satya (1998) and Company (2002). The gang fights have a gritty immediacy, save for the cheesy sound effects. There are two terrific chases—one with Nagarjuna on a bicycle, then on foot, the other a noirish midnight run. But there’s also dozens of smaller bits of tidy business, like the marvellously simple scene where a livid Nagarjuna makes his way across a noisy bar, up the stairs, opens a door, walks up to a gang member and—here Varma kills the music —kicks and punches him eight times with deliberation and intent.—UB
Sanak saw Vidyut Jammwal at his absolute peak. The film is basically Die Hard (1988) in a hospital, Jammwal playing MMA instructor Vivaan, who single-handedly takes on terrorists who’ve taken his wife hostage. The fight scenes are uniformly excellent; Vivaan’s duel with three terrorists in a medical supplies room is an absolute standout. There’s all manner of martial arts mayhem, superfast hands, frenetic two-against-one fights and unusually skilled, relentless opponents. But there’s so much more—at one point, a nearly-knocked-out Jammwal shoots a glass cabinet and slurps spilt milk from the floor, feline-style, to boost his plummeting blood sugar levels. In another scene, a canister filled with toxic gas is broken, forcing the combatants to fight over an oxygen mask, moments after Jammwal has bashed them with a walker. It’s Jackie Chan-style improvisation at its finest. An exercise ball becomes the most incredible fight scene prop. A child and an MRI machine become conduits in an insane duel. The climactic beatdown is turbo-charged in a very 1980s Hong Kong actioner way. Sanak shows us that A-list Bollywood continues to sleep on Jammwal. Give him a decent script and good fight coordinators and he can deliver world-class results.—AMJ
One of the joys of Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota—and there are many—is the way it engages with the history of martial arts cinema while also remaining a resolutely Mumbai film. Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani), whose congenital insensitivity to pain makes him a unique fighter, wears a striped jumpsuit in tribute to Bruce Lee. Mani (Gulshan Devaiah), a “cliché drunk karate master”, has only one leg, just like so many classic Shaw Brothers characters with missing limbs. In the middle of an extended climactic showdown, gangster Jimmy (Devaiah again) stops the fighting to establish “tournament rules”—a terrific gag, but also the film placing itself within a tradition.
Indian martial arts films, the few that there are, usually have a budget or a good director or a cast that can really fight—but not all three. Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is the exception: sweet, riotously funny, racking up tributes along the way (Kishore Kumar’s ‘Nakrewaali’ plays as Radhika Madan wastes a group of thugs), and with enough top-drawer fighting to satisfy the fussiest of fans.—UB
The cult of the performer in action cinema is so unshakable that even broad-minded fans often tend to underrate the role of cinematography. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero has some wonderful fights and chases, each planned and choreographed with care, and a committed Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor as the masked vigilante who fights bad guys with a large stick and spends a lot of his time poking around sewers (is his role model a ninja turtle?). So it’s no shade on anyone, least of all Vikramaditya Motwane, who makes canny directorial choices throughout, to say that the thing which gives this film its edge is Siddharth Diwan’s work behind the camera. Like Johnnie To's films, the sleek, dark sheen of the photography makes the action so much more hypnotic, whether it’s the startling image of fighters in the rain atop gigantic pipes or the electrifying bike chase which concludes with Bhavesh engaging a secret turbo gear, Street Hawk-style.—UB
Thallumaala might be the most naturally action-minded film on this list, because it’s about people whose only purpose in life is fighting. Fights over scuffed shoes, over real and imagined insults, over hurt egos, over the fact that it’s inconvenient to take a longer route home bypassing an ongoing fight. Wazim (Tovino Thomas) risks his love, his job, his family, all because he can’t stop breaking heads. His opposite number is the older Reji (Tom Shine Chacko), a cautionary tale. Their bloody encounters are made even more purposeless by the film non-chronological structure—when the reason is unclear, the fight is all that remains. The underlying nihilism is balanced by Khalid Rahman’s vibrant, inventive direction, which has the zaniness of Edgar Wright and the best slo-mo beatdowns in a national cinema that by now owns slo-mo beatdowns.—UB
By the mid-2010s, Hollywood had, for the first time, begun to make serious inroads into the Indian market. The assumption at the time was that Indian cinema would keep doing what it did best—sweeping song and dance—and hope audiences would tire of superheroes and other assorted tentpoles. This view was reversed by the success of S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali, which started an arms race across Indian film industries to come up with bonkers maximalist spectacles. What made Rajamouli’s vision unique was the way he sidestepped the modern self-aware Hollywood blockbuster and reached back to an earlier, primal style—Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), the Biblical films of Cecil B. DeMille—and at the same time told stories steeped in Indian mythology and folklore and Amar Chitra Katha (the soft Hindutva vibes underpinning the stories didn’t hurt).
Prabhas plays Mahendra Baahubali, a great battering ram of a villager, and, in flashback, his father, prince Amarendra Baahubali. The film’s calling card is the battle between Amarendra’s army and the invading Kaalakeyas. It lasts half an hour and there’s a new crazy idea every five minutes (the giant sheet catapulted towards the enemy and then set on fire might be the winner). It’s what Rajamouli had been building towards all those years in Telugu cinema. Finally, technology had caught up with his imagination.—UB
Siddharth Anand’s War is the culmination of both Tiger Shroff’s rise as an action movie star and Hrithik Roshan’s remarkable second wind since Bang Bang! (see no. 41). The film pits Khalid (Shroff), a wunderkind RAW soldier, against his former mentor Kabir (Roshan), who has gone rogue. The film’s ambition is telegraphed by Shroff’s opening fight scene, edited like a one-shot. The axiomatic difference between this and every other big-budget fight scene ever shot in Bollywood is simple—at no point of time is the camera trying to obscure or even slightly distract you from the leading man’s movements. The camera instead ducks and weaves with him, confident in Shroff’s limbic elegance even as he scythes his way through his opponents, leaping, contorting, dropping high-kicks. With this scene, Shroff and Anand throw down the gauntlet for all future comers.
And what of Roshan? Playing the grizzled silver fox here, his climactic fight scene against Shroff is worth the hype. But it’s the scenes where he works with the younger star that are even more compelling. A rescue operation in the first half sees the two teaming up to take down a hulking, Great Khali-like opponent, with Avengers-style ‘back-to-back’ shots. A turbo-charged motorcycle chase culminates with the two interlocking arms as their bikes burn rubber in a perfect circle, the camera moving overhead to underline the yin-yang future of Indian action.—AMJ
In the recent Karan Johar romcom Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, flamboyant west Delhi boy Rocky says, “If Rani ki uthaani ho doli, setting has to be Rajamouli!” It has been just eight years since Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning became arguably the first commercially successful “pan-India” film. And already, the name Rajamouli has become a metonym for scale, grandeur and eye-popping visuals.
All these strengths are fully realised by Rajamouli’s magnum opus, RRR, a dual-superhero, revolutionaries vs colonisers saga set in British-ruled India, circa 1920. Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is a Gond hunter trying to retrieve a young Gond girl kidnapped by British governor Scott’s wife. A. Ramaraju (Ram Charan) is an Indian member of the Imperial Police Force who is secretly working with freedom fighters to arm his people with British guns. Their paths cross in a meet-cute for the ages and the rest of the film follows them as they diverge and later converge to deliver the most astonishing action-movie climax seen in an Indian film.
Yes, the film places Bheem within “noble savage” tropes and presents Ram Charan as Lord Ram incarnate at the end. But RRR’s action scenes are peerless. It feels like virtually every action scene in this film has been clipped and dissected ad infinitum on social media—the two heroes’ respective entry scenes, especially Ram Charan’s, where he delivers a brutal smackdown to a hundreds-strong mob. Rajamouli’s unique touch with special effects is evident here—in a remarkable moment, the camera is placed right beside Ram Charan’s retina, using it as a mirror. And in this ersatz mirror, we see the now brutalised remnants of the mob limping away.
The fire-and-water symbology (Bheem is water, Raju is fire) threaded through the film sees its purest expression in the first meeting of NTR Jr. and Ram Charan. The duo uses a horse and a motorcycle (Sholay much?) to save a young boy who’s facing certain death (both fiery and watery, since a train is exploding overhead and the boy is marooned on a tiny boat in a ring of fire).
The “Ten-Foot Warrior” climax is an astonishing achievement, both in terms of visualisation and effects. An injured Ram Charan cannot use his legs and is carried on his shoulders by the super-strong Bheem—this is even telegraphed early on in a song, where Bheem does the same thing, only this time in jest. The Baahubali films confirmed Rajamouli’s status as an action movie director of uncommon ambition. RRR will be the gold standard against which all challengers to the throne will be assessed.—AMJ